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Al Jazeera live feed of Egypt

I'm writing this diary to address a question some people have been asking about the recent events, compared to Iran in 1979. People have asked whether islamists (groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt) have played or could play a major role in the Egyptian protests. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, some say, started out fairly secular, and the Shi'i clergy took over and made it an Islamic Revolution. So, couldn't that happen this time, too?

The short answer is No. Partly, this is because of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 itself, and how it changed people's perceptions of Islam and islamists. Partly it's because of very basic differences between religion in Iran and Egypt.

update: OpEd on Muslim Brotherhood

So, here's the deal, in a nutshell (with a longer version below):

The Iranian Shi'i ulama (ulama are religious scholars a.k.a. mullahs a.k.a clergy) already had an organizational structure in place that was independent of the state. They mobilized that organizational structure to take power in Iran once the government was destabilized. These religious scholars were the main spiritual and legal authorities for the vast majority of practicing Iranian Muslims. Remember, Khomeini was an Ayatollah--that is one of the highest titles given to Shi'i scholars, and this is something completely outside of politics.

The situation in Egypt is very different. Religious scholarly authorities in Sunni Islam are not organized hierarchically the way they are for Shi'is. The closest thing to such an organized hierarchy in Egypt is the religious schools, the most important being al-Azhar University in Cairo. Al-Azhar has always been close to the Egyptian government. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB for short) in Egypt does have a large network of charitable organizations like the Shi'i ulama did in Iran. Many poor people might take advantage of their services, like low-cost health-care and job training, but they are essentially a political movement. They don't have spiritual authority in the eyes of the whole population of practicing believers the way the Iranian ulama did (and do).

Also, the revolution of 1979 was to be Islamic pretty much in name only for many people. Islam was a symbol of national identity that Iranian intellectuals appealed to. But they didn't actually want rule by Shi'i clergy, and in fact they didn't think that Shi'i clergy would actually want to rule, or be capable of ruling for more than a very short time. The outcome of Iran 1979 changed people's perceptions of anything anybody tries to pass off as "islamic government", and now Arab political dissidents are very wary to distance themselves from islamist movements like the MB.

Iranian ulama: spiritual authority + widespread independent organizational structure

Muslim Brotherhood: widespread independent organizational structure, no spiritual authority

Egyptian ulama: spiritual authority, but no independent organizational structure

Now, here's a longer version with more explanation:

The way the islamists took over in Iran was that they had an entire shadow state made up of different religious charitable organizations waiting in the wings when the national government faltered. These religious organizations were basically charities that provided different services to the poor, and attracted lots of volunteer help from Iranian university students and others.

The other advantage that the Iranian ulama enjoyed was that they were the main spiritual authority for Iranian Muslims. Even if you had no interest in "islamic politics" (as most people didn't--it was kind of a hare-brained, extremely untested idea at the time), if you were a practicing Shi'i Muslim, you, or whatever Shi'i scholar you consulted for spiritual advice, probably had tremendous respect for the scholarly authority of people like Ayatollah Khomeini. Ayatollah was one of the highest titles a Shi'i scholar could be given, and that scholarly/spiritual authority was something Khomeini had that was completely apart from politics--a bit like being a Roman Catholic Archbishop.

Also, unlike in Turkey and Egypt, the Iranian religious establishment had always been mostly independent of the state. It never (in 200+ years) relied on the state for funding or recognition. In Egypt, the most prominent religious institution is al-Azhar, which is a really massive university that teaches, in addition to Islamic religious sciences, standard university fare like medicine, economics, and engineering. Al-Azhar's religious scholars have tremendous standing among Sunni Muslims worldwide, even though Sunni Muslims don't have the sort of hierarchy of religious scholars that Shi'is have. But in any event, it has had close ties to the government for decades at least. In fact, throughout the history of the Ottoman Empire, Muslim clergy were (at least in theory) one of many paid government jobs, so for that reason they have always tended to toe the government line. al-Azhar's religious scholars have spoken out against terrorism, and more recently against female genital cutting.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB for short), the MB is a political organization, nobody there is a spiritual authority of the stature of Khomeini or the scholars at al-Azhar. They do have a very large network of charities, providing things like affordable health care (ha!) and job training to the poor in Egypt. They are probably quite capable of mobilizing people. But from what I understand (and I admit here that while my sources are very very good, they are not strictly speaking scientific), most Egyptians don't really like them very much, and certainly wouldn't want them in charge. Egyptians, in short, will not get behind them the way Iranians got behind Khomeini in the late 70s/early 80s.

This is where the other big difference with Iran comes in. Let's go back in time to 1977. At that time, people who fancied themselves "educated" and "modern" generally believed that Islamic clergy were inherently "quietist", meaning they respected authority too much and were too interested in non-worldly matters to ever be an effective political force. They were not "modern" and "dynamic" and all that mumbojumbo. To put it less politely, they were widely held to be medieval idiots whose main aspiration in life was to sit around in a seminary debating how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. Their backward, conservative ways made them incapable of adopting modern methods of bureaucratic and political organization. The talking heads and an earlier generation of academics (a.k.a. "Orientalists") all had their explanations as to why Muslim religious scholars would never be a serious political force, but basically they all came down to some variant on religion is dumb and science is Western.

Anyway, people thought that Muslim religious scholars were basically harmless. Part of the reason the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was so memorable is that it overturned what a lot of people thought they knew about Islam, and religion and modernity in general. There were whole theories about modernization and development that scholars had built their careers around that Iran 1979 chewed up and shat out. I'm told some people even gave up scholarship and turned to the bottle. That's why we're still talking about Iran today.

So, was 1979 an Islamic revolution from the beginning? The reason so many Iranian intellectuals at the time talked about Islam, and why many Iranians were willing to get behind Khomeini as a revolutionary leader, was that he represented a kind of Iranian cultural authenticity. Marxism and other revolutionary ideologies were totally alien to most Iranians. The idea of a "great Iranian civilization" inaugurated by Cyrus and Darius was pretty much a modern contrivance. Not that there isn't or wasn't such a thing (and it does go back even before Cyrus), but this "great Iranian civilization" was something that only resonated with educated people. For most Iranians, their folk heroes were Shi'i martyrs like Hussein, who represented (to them--not to Sunnis) a painful memory of the early Muslim community's collective failure to stand up for what was right. Their folk heroes were not warlords from ancient epic poetry who were famous for stuff like shooting an arrow that pinned a deer's foreleg to its ear, in order to (...what else?) impress a woman. Shi'i Islam was a mythic heritage that all Iranians shared, no matter how uneducated or apolitical they were, so Iranian intellectuals tried to speak in religious language to connect with the people, even though they themselves might not have been religious at all, or had very little regard for religious leaders. A good example of this is two figures later lionized by the Islamic revolution--Ali Shariati and Jalal Al-e Ahmad. Al-e Ahmad wrote a memoir of his pilgrimage to Mecca, and it's hardly pious--frankly, it's pretty awful and insulting. But his motive was to connect to this experience of pilgrimage, which he felt alienated from, but that was meaningful to so many Iranians. So that's where a lot of Iranians were at in the late 70s, and why they talked about Islam so much.

So the "Islamic revolution" many Iranians supported was almost more like an "Islam-flavored" revolution. That was the most they thought they would ever get, because everybody thought that Muslim clergy were "quietist" and would return to the seminaries as soon as they were faced with any actual responsibilities of governance.

Obviously, nobody believes that anymore--not only were the Iranian ulama ruthless enough to hold onto power (the Iran-Iraq War being a shameful display of how far they would go to do so), they were even prepared to make serious compromises, like encouraging birth control (although, note that in Islam, abortion was generally considered permissible, and birth control was widely used--a very different situation from, say, the Catholic Church; not as big a compromise as it might seem from a US PoV) and even if Egyptians are on the whole culturally more conservative than Iranians were back then, it would be a lot harder for the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to be repeated in Egypt today. There were even tweets going out on Jan 25 saying something like "Muslim Brotherhood, with all due respect, stay out of this." (via Juan Cole, like, today or yesterday or something)

A quick and tardy disclaimer: I'm writing this in a hurry, for which reason I don't have a whole lot of links on the MB and al-Azhar in Egypt--I'm mostly going by what's in my head. I'm pretty confident on my Iranian history but less so on the contemporary Arab situation. There may be nuances or details I missed. I welcome suggestions, corrections, and clarifications in the comments.

further reading:
Street Politics: poor people's movements in Iran by Asef Bayat
The Making of Iran's Islamic Revolution: from monarchy to republic by Mohsen Milani

Hope y'all got something out of this. :)

update: link to Al Jazeera live feed added to top of diary
update: op-ed on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt by the Brookings Institute

Originally posted to bicycle Hussein paladin on Thu Jan 27, 2011 at 06:59 PM PST.

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